Back in 2009, I remember driving from Boulder, CO to my relatives in Massachusetts for Thanksgiving. Past endless corn fields, elegant New York woods, and plenty gas stations in between.
I was broke and scared
Both the conscious and subconscious parts of my brain were wired for fear and panic. Creatively, I was completely shut down and pervasively ruled by my ego. This ego was so adept that I had no idea it was in control.
As I rolled across the country, I played the audiobook Think And Grow Rich in my Nissan Altima’s CD player.
Over and over again, I’d listen to self-development audios like this, and read the usual books. Sometimes they’d jazz me up. Sometimes not… but I always felt like it was a good habit. Something that, whether I felt was immediately useful or not, it’d nourish my future.
I fell into a trap millions of desperate people are caught in. Years later, I still couldn’t quite put my finger on it… and I’m still trying to suss it out.
As I began to truly crawl out of the financial hole I’d dug myself into, books like Think And Grow Rich loosened their grasp on me. I began to wake up and realize, “Hey wait a minute, this stuff isn’t the end-all, be-all, and merely listening to it does NOT help… and, come to think of it, taking action on it doesn’t help either. Wait, what action do these books even recommend taking?”
This was when the veil began to drop.
“Well, wait a minute,” I said to myself, “Maybe the reason you feel this way, is because you graduated from these books, and you internalized their lessons.”
I’ll play nice for a moment, and argue as if that’s true.
Fine. Then why does there exist a culture that obsesses over self-help and positive-thinking books touting how to make millions, treating these materials like endless companions? Aren’t they just one little stepping stone, something to quickly hop over before you really get to work? (And if you used them with success as a stepping stone – that’s wonderful – and I’d wager the success had everything to do with you, and little to do with the book.)
More to the point…
Don’t these people realize that by immersing themselves in such material, they’re preventing themselves from growing into and beyond it?
Here’s an example.
Let’s say you want to master the game of tennis.
So you pick up a couple books on the mindset of tennis. Aha! Because that’s where the real key is. You spend time every day reading about overcoming fear of tennis… how you’re secretly self-sabotaging your tennis efforts… and how it’s important to develop the success habit of playing tennis.
Whenever you’re feeling down, you grab your trusty tennis books, and the mere act of reading triggers pleasure hormones to gush through your brain. Ah, much better! You’re back on track.
You seek out other books on tennis and devour them. You build – with pride – a whole library of tennis books.
Perhaps you even attend seminars on the inner game of tennis. They claim they’re going into more depth than the cheaper books. Good – it’s always beneficial to attend seminars proclaiming to go in-depth into things.
You worship the presenters at these seminars and the authors of these books. Not in a crazy sort of way, of course. You just know – deep in your soul – that following their teachings is the way to success. The only way. So, to stray outside of them is stupid. Insane. And anyone who doesn’t follow their teachings is stupid and destined for some cataclysmic failure that you can’t quite identify but you’re sure will befall them.
Meanwhile… completely outside your awareness… your next-door neighbor has taken a different approach
He also developed an interest in tennis.
So he grabbed a racket, and joined a club. He devoted hours to playing. Working with coaches, teammates, and entering competitions. Always making little tweaks here and there. Sometimes suffering humiliating losses. Far more than you’d think. Then, eventually… growing and competing at higher levels.
You never meet your neighbor. For one reason or another (perhaps relating to your methods of learning and growth), you just never enter the same social circles. But – outside your awareness – he’s actually got a couple acquaintances in common with you.
He knows the authors of the books on tennis you worship. In fact, he’s been approached by them to do interviews and speak at events. But he turns them down. He thinks the whole industry is a little silly. He’d say something like, “I mean… it’s pretty simple. You practice. You find people who can help. You play with those at your skillset. And you help others who aren’t as far along the learning curve. Then it’s just a matter of how obsessed you can be while remaining open to improvement. You have to customize your own lessons based on your self-awareness.”
The authors and presenters plead with your friend to teach this wisdom. “That’s great stuff! Yes, please come share at our events how important it is to take action on what we sell!”
“But…” he replies, “I don’t think that’s the real problem…
“I don’t know if the issue’s the kind of customer you attract or the culture you create. Maybe it’s both. But, somehow, you keep people stuck. Your entire paradigm of learning is actually non-learning. You’re actively preventing mental growth while verbally affirming mental growth is necessary, and getting your audience to nod along with you. Maybe they never have a chance to succeed at what they want so desperately, but you sure as heck aren’t their key, even if they do have a chance.”
For a while, as I turned this idea of self-help books being bullshit over in my mind, this was all I could come up with. Something was missing. Probably more than one thing. I know there’s more wrong with this paradigm.
Another piece of the puzzle fell into place when I stood inside an old building in Baltimore, on the phone with a man who teaches businesses how to grow, and sometimes invests in the companies.
He explained to me how he wanted to advertise people who wanted to start businesses, and deliver them training online.
It’d been seven years since my cross-country trip where I bathed in the soothing self-help affirmation, and after actually accomplishing what those books preach… I’d developed a more skeptical mind.
“I’ve seen businesses in the ‘make money’ niche establish themselves online. And from what I’ve seen, they attract a customer who isn’t really capable of building a business. The marketing itself acts as a filter, only attracting the wrong type of customer. That’s my perspective, but I’d like to hear yours.”
He understood my concern
He replied with a few good points. One of them became another piece of the puzzle for me:
He doesn’t teach how to make money, or even emphasize that aspect. Instead, his focus is on teaching how to build and grow a business.
If an advertisement (or a culture, or a paradigm, etc.) emphasizes making money or getting rich… who is attracted? Those who feel the most frustration surrounding money, and are most desperate for it. Most of these people are not ready to actually create and build a business. They’re still too bogged down in psychological pain surrounding money, commerce, and selling.
But what if an advertisement emphasizes building a business?
Who is attracted? Those who have already gotten over their frustration surrounding money. Or are at least in the process. They are ready to create a business, because they understand it’s the next logical action-step. They’re over their inner pain. Or perhaps they never felt it. And as far as riches are concerned… it’s automatically implied that building a business will generate income. To emphasize that point would be ridiculous… crass… laughably-obvious… and perhaps even a creepy signal that someone hasn’t reached the necessary level of psychological development required for building a business. I wonder if there’s a single word for what I’m trying to get across?
Whatever it is, that word would be kryptonite for anyone in the bullshit self-help space.
Another piece of this puzzle fell into place when I read the Albert Einstein quote:
“No problem can be solved by the same kind of thinking that created it.”
EDIT: To be fair to Professor Einstein, I searched around for the most accurate translation, while allowing that it might have been mis-attributed to him.
A book about some law of attraction, or explaining how to set goals, keeps you stuck with the same kind of thinking that generated your problem. Most of the time, the author is stuck there, too. Or they’re a sociopath who understands they can make the most money – within the limits of their skillsets, ethics, and behaviors – by keeping you stuck. And never telling you to put down the book.